Friday, February 12, 2016

My 11th great grandfather Edward Wightman: The Last Man Burned at the Stake in England

Dear Grandfather Edward,
     As we were celebrating the beginning of 2016, I began to look at the calendar in my genealogy software program (Legacy) to help me select an ancestor born on New Year's Day or shortly thereafter and write their story. Your 4 times great granddaughter, Martha Rathbone was born January 2, 1736 in Stonington, Connecticut and I thought I would begin this year's posts with her. Well....I was innocently writing Martha's story and noted that she was the daughter of Capt. Joshua and Mary (Wightman) Rathbone and then realized that I did not know the ancestral origin of her mother's family who had settled in Rhode Island. That research led me to your story.
     You were probably born a little before your baptism December 20, 1566 in Burbage, Leicestershire, England. Your mother is Modwen or Madewyn Caldwall, daughter of William Caldwall, and a member of a family of successful drapers or traders of wool. Your father, John Wightman, was headmaster of the grammar school at Repton, Derbyshire just a few miles from your mother's family's home in Burton-on-Trent. It is unknown if you attended your father's school or were
schooled in Burton-on-Trent.
     Evidently, your father's profession of school master did not call you. Instead you entered the cloth business of your mother's family serving an apprenticeship to John Barnes as a woolen draper in the town of Shrewsbury beginning in 1580. Did you meet the woman you would marry selling cloth at the market in her hometown of Hinckley? Your marriage to Frances Darbye was registered at the
Staffordshire Record Office September 11, 1583.
     Settling in Burton-on-Trent and engaging in the cloth trade, you and Frances are the parents of six children:

 Johannis Wightman, born circa November 1594, died young.

 Priscilla Wightman, born circa December 1596

 John Wightman, born circa January 1598, died in Rhode Island Colony

 Maris Wightman, born circa February 1602

 Anna Wightman, born circa September 1608

 Samuel Wightman, born circa August 1611, died in Rhode Island Colony

     Everything about your life to this point seems somewhat ordinary. Of course, I can only imagine the turmoil the English people had experienced since King Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1529.  King Henry's argument with the Pope wasn't just about divorcing his wife. He was also frustrated that the Roman Catholic Church in England, the next largest land owner in the country next to the crown, owed its allegiance and funds to the Pope. His newly established Church of England continued the policy that church attendance was mandatory and both Crown and Church used these services to spread their dictates. Every English man was subject to the rule of the Church, they were required to pay for the support of their local clergyman and the upkeep of the church. Not only did the church have the power to tax the people, it also could summon the people to a church court for a variety of offenses. Those transgressions included; failure to attend church, adultery, fornication, gossip and heresy. The church courts had the power to excommunicate those who were found guilty. Punishment for the most serious offense, heresy, was turned over to the civil authorities.
     It seems likely that you were first exposed to the Puritan movement while serving your apprenticeship in Shrewsbury. The English Puritans were trying to purge the Church of England of all Roman Catholic practices. They were looking to eliminate the expensive trappings and rites that made priests seem to be princes. A thriving movement, headed by John Tomkys, was centered in Shrewsbury. Others in Burton-on-Trent were establishing Puritanism there including Peter Eccleshall
who was indicted in 1588 for not using the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer  and Philip Stubbes, a Puritan evangelist. By your subsequent actions, their preaching must have found a place in your heart.
     I wish you could detail for your descendants the process by which you became committed to what is described as "an emotional and spiritual band of Puritanism." Clearly, your new views differed radically from not only the Church of England but also those of the local Puritan leaders. Wikipedia's article on you lists thirteen of your views that brought you into direct conflict with the Church and King James I.
  •  There is no Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost).
  •  Jesus Christ was not God.
  •  Jesus Christ was a mere man.
  •  Christ was never incarnate and did not fulfill the promises of salvation.
  •  The three creeds (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian) of the apostolic church were lies.
  •  You, Edward Wightman, were the promised Messiah of the Old Testament.
  •  You were the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.
  •  To deny that you were divine was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, worthy of everlasting  death.
  •  Jesus Christ is dead and there is no punishment for sinners in the afterlife.
  • You are literally the prophet Elijah.
  • The historic baptism of the church (baptism of infants) is wickedness.
  • The Lord's Supper (communion) is evil.
  • That God ordained you (Wightman) Saviour of the world.
     The power of the established Church and King were overwhelming. That many clerics tried to dissuade you of your beliefs may well have been out of respect for your place in the community and your family. Finally you were given the ultimatum, recant your opinions or "burn at the stake in Burton before Allholland day next."

     You were taken to Lichfield, and ordered to be placed "in some public and open place... and before the people burned in the detestation of the said crime and for manifest example of other Christians that they may not fall into the same crime." King James I approved your execution.

St. Mary's Church and Marketplace Lichfield, England from the early 19th century
Image from
     I can only imagine the pain and terror you experienced when the flames reached your feet and legs. Reports are that you screamed to recant and the gathered crowd pleaded for your release. Pulled from the flames, you were already too badly injured to sign the papers accepting beliefs of the church. Two weeks later, you were brought before the authorities to sign your denial of your beliefs. After your firm refusal, you were once again tied to the stake in the marketplace  and this time burned to death. The date was April 11, 1612.

View of Lichfield Marketplace 2012
from Edward Wightman Memorial #101686171
     What terror your family must have experienced! Your children were between the ages of 16 and less than a year old. How would your wife be able to support the family? She soon left for London and some anonymity. Not surprisingly, your two surviving sons immigrated to Rhode Island, a colony known for religious tolerance.

     Historically, you bear the dubious distinction of having been the last Englishman burned at the stake. There is a plaque near the marketplace in Lichfield marking that distinction.

Photograph of Marketplace plaque from 
Edward Wightman Memorial #101686171
This Memorial was written by Edward's 11th great grandson Steven Tynan.
     I wish I could say that people are no longer being put to death for their religious beliefs but sadly there are radical religious groups that are still committing such atrocities today. You have moved to the top of the list of ancestors with whom I would like to have dinner.


For family members: Our descent from Edward Wightman

Cecily13, Charles12, Charles11 Cone, Helen10 Newton, Mary9 Clarke, Lydia8, George7 Hornell, Jr., Martha6 Stevens, Martha5 Rathbone, Mary4,Valentine3, George2, John1, EdwardA Wightman

Superscript A indicates the generation that did not immigrate. If there is no surname after the name, the surname is the same as the previous generation.

     My original post was formatted in Word with footnotes which did not import into the Blogger format this time though they have in previous posts. Additional information on Edward Wightman's story can be found at the following sources:

"England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975," database, FamilySearch ( accessed 9 January 2016), Edward Wightman, 20 Dec 1566; citing BURBAGE,LEICESTER,ENGLAND, reference; FHL microfilm 585,278.

"England Marriages, 1538–1973 ," database, FamilySearch ( accessed 9 January 2016), Edward Wightman and Francis Darbye, 11 Sep 1593; citing St. Modwen's, Burton Upon Trent, Staffordshire, England, reference items 4-10; FHL microfilm 1,278,931.

"Contributions to the history of the Whiteman or Wightman Family", The Narragansett Historical Register, Vol. 3, No. 4 (April 1885), Pages 290-2.

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